Platonic Poetry

ONE envies Mr. Harrison the many months of earnest study which must have gone to the making of his account of Platonism in English Poetry.1 To walk familiarly, when one is young, with the ideal forms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness which loom over the pages of Plato, and ennoble by their presence so many fine English poems, is to insure genial and humane thinking when years shall have brought the philosophic mind. Yet the wisdom of allowing such delightful studies to be erected into a volume is not so clear. Indeed, the book seems to fall between the academic and literary stools. “ Its method,” says Mr. Harrison, “ is purely critical. It has not attempted to treat the subject from the standpoint of the individual poet, but has tried to interpret the whole body of English poetry of the period under survey as an integral output of the spiritual thought and life of the time.” Unluckily the “purely critical” method is not justified in the result. The book is disabled for both the scholarly and the general reader by lack of perspective and of definition. Spenser and John Norris are mentioned in the same breath, despite the century of changing ideals between them. Henry More, an interesting man, but one of the most lamentable of poets, is made to bulk as large as Sidney ; yet Joseph Beaumont, the 40,000 lines of whose Psyche was one vast fabric of Platonism, is not mentioned at all. Save in the preface, nothing is said of those Continental forces from which English Platonism can never be disentangled, and there is no account at all of any of those personal groups and influences on which the actual life of any Platonism has always depended. To a purely critical book the lack of definition is a more serious drawback. No clear distinction is made between the theoretical and almost systematic Platonism which appeared in the poetry of the period, and the more intimate Platonism of mood which has never been absent from the poetic temperament; nor is any line of cleavage laid down between Platonism proper, and Cabbalism, Cartesianism, Rosicrucianism, Catholic mysticism, and the hundred other isms too tedious to mention, which engaged the men of those moody and unquiet times. It is a pity that so much detraction must be made from an earnest book which contains many interesting poetical extracts, some pages of excellent expository writing, and a useful bibliography, yet it is important that persons having authority in such matters should consider the dangers which beset the belletristic student when he ventures upon the strange seas of philosophic thought.

An interesting volume for collateral reading with Mr. Harrison’s book is Mr. Cooke’s anthology of Transcendental poetry.2 It is a workmanlike compilation made with information and taste. It presents a striking racial embodiment of the Platonic mood in poetry, and offers some curious points of similarity and opposition to the specimens of Platonizing poetry furnished by Mr. Harrison. The Transcendental poets themselves would have disclaimed the analogy ; for Platonism was but a drop in the vast bucket of their omniscience. They accepted the universe, and all one to them were

“ The grand and magnificent dreamers ;
The heroes and mighty redeemers ;
The martyrs, reformers, and leaders ;
The voices of mystical Vedas.”

Yet considering their poetry as a finished product, its spiritual sense of life — its constant sense of the unity and sempiternity of beauty—makes it more comparable to the body of English Platonic poetry than to any similar body of verse in the world, not excepting the flights of the German Transcendental lyre. On the other hand, the racy, indigenous quality of the verse which Mr. Cooke has collected makes a difference as striking as the likeness. Where the typical Platonizing poem is florid with imagery drawn from the beauties of sky and meadow and the female sex, the typical Transcendental poem is as scrawny and pungent as a rock-rooted pine. Indeed, poetic Transcendentalism seems almost the cult of the pine; and there are few stanzas, and fewer poems, in Mr. Cooke’s books, that do not allude to it. We hear a great many such ejaculations as this: —

“O tall old pine! O gloomy pine !
O grim gigantic gloomy pine !
What is there in that voice of thine
That thrills so deep this heart of mine ? ”
Yet there is as fine poetic impressiveness in the poet’s suggestion that in the sighing of the pines he catches a sound of
“ The soul’s unfathomable sea,
The ocean of eternity,”

as in Vaughan’s

“ I saw eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.”

In both the English Platonics and the American Transcendentalists there was a growing tendency toward artificiality ; the lesser men constantly tended to accept as mere current counters the phrases and images which the leaders had used to express real emotions and sincere thoughts. In the long run the Transcendentalists fall far behind the Platonists not only in the music and color of their verse, but in élan and suggestiveness as well. Yet when it becomes a question of which set of poets concealed the ink-horn more successfully the advantage goes the other way. The Platonist poets were largely young men in libraries or courts or taprooms, and most of them died young. The Transcendental poets were of both sexes ; they seem, when out of the pulpit or parlor, to have been walking woodland roads. We discover from Mr. Cooke’s biographical notes that few of them failed to weather threescore and ten, while many of them — half a century after the flowering of their school — still survive at an even more advanced and honorable old age.

F. G.

  1. Platonism in English Poetry of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. By JOHN SMITH HARRISON. New York: The Columbia University Press. (The Macmillan Co.) 1903.
  2. The Poets of Transcendentalism. Edited by GEORGE WILLIS COOKE. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903